As instructed, students closed their eyes and grasped the hands of the people next to them. Over the sounds of passing cars and occasional honks of encouragement, Students of Color Collective (SOCC) member and emcee Chelsea Johnson-Long spoke out to the crowd of hunger strikers and supporters who gathered at the base of campus Tuesday.
“Really feel their hands,” Johnson-Long said into a microphone amplified by bicycle-powered speakers. “How would you feel if that person could no longer be here? Isn’t their being here the most important thing right now?”
During this rare quiet moment at the sunny afternoon rally, Johnson-Long referenced the increases in tuition for working-class families and the university’s perceived lack of support for undocumented AB540 students, two of many issues that SOCC students believe are especially detrimental to UC Santa Cruz’s students of color. The event was designed to shine light on such issues as well as kick off SOCC’s hunger strike.
“A hunger strike is probably one of the most extreme direct actions we can take,” Johnson-Long said. “[SOCC] chose to take this action because it is so extreme. This is the most effective way to show how urgent these resources are and how important it is that we fight for them.”
SOCC hunger strikers are hoping to negotiate a list of demands pertaining to students of color. These include hiring a director for the American Indian Resource Center and retaining the community studies program, among other diversity-focused demands. For many students, the decision to cut these programs and positions now calls for radical action.
Armando Mendez, an SOCC hunger striker in charge of researching hunger strike methodology and safety, hoped that the strike would initiate communication with the university.
“By denying our bodies, we’re telling the university how important this is,” Mendez said. “Every day that they don’t talk to us it’s going to get worse and worse.”
The length of the anticipated hunger strike varied among individuals. Many agreed to fast for 24 hours, while others strove to go hungry for “as long as necessary.” While the level of sacrifice wasn’t set, all rally attendees agreed to be respectful and nonviolent during the events.
In addition to initiating the hunger strike, the rally included speakers, performances and a traditional Native American blessing of the rally grounds.
One of the speakers, feminist studies professor Bettina Aptheker, noted that strikes like this come from a long line of passionate protests throughout history. She referenced a hunger strike that took place in 1978 when a UCSC Native American professor was fired.
Although those students were not successful in saving his position, Aptheker felt that their efforts were not in vain.
“We remember the efforts of those students,” Aptheker said to the enthusiastic crowd. “Now it’s time to pick up the torch, pick up the banner, pick up the drum, and keep on beating.”
Throwbacks to past hunger strikes popped up throughout the rally. Another UCSC hunger strike in 1981, led by the Third World and Native American Student group (TWANAS), fought to start up an ethnic studies department at UCSC. Twenty-eight years later, movement toward creating such a department has yet to be seen.
“There’s an irony in it being the 30-year anniversary of TWANAS,” Johnson-Long said. “For us, this is kind of a way to honor the people who started this struggle by continuing it and hopefully with a little more success.”
Jazzed by the efforts of past revolutionaries, rally-goers felt that connecting with one another was also essential to making their efforts successful. Johnson-Long was happy to say she could turn to fellow students of color when outside support dwindled.
“My major is being cut, my resource center director is being cut, there is nothing that the university does that tells me I’m valuable here,” Johnson-Long said. “The fact that there are so many students that are down to talk about these things and stay up until 4 a.m. writing a proposal, that’s what keeps me here.”
With this supportive group of strikers, Armando Mendez plans to camp out at the base of campus as a means of drawing attention to the cause. He understands the potential legal consequences and agreed not to put up a fight.
“We’re not sure how the university and police are going to react come sunset, but we all agreed to be nonviolent,” Mendez said. “If we are evacuated, we’re not going to fight. But we’ll be here the next day at 6 a.m. to do it all over again.”